CLEMSON — Perhaps no Clemson players have as much to prove this spring as linebackers Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward.
The juniors were five-star prospects in 2011, and both chose Clemson on signing day, announcements that compelled coaches Dabo Swinney and Jeff Scott to leap out of their West Zone chairs in celebration, and raise Clemson’s class into the top 10 of rankings. They were thought capable of providing an immediate impact and were expected to soon become faces of the defense, restoring Clemson to status as the Southeast’s Linebacker U.
But entering their third years on campus, each is still waiting to break out.
Steward’s development has been slowed by injury. He tore a knee ligament shortly into his true freshman year, missing most of the season. Last season, Clemson elected not to redshirt Steward — even though he was coming off consecutive years with ACL tears — and Steward was limited mostly to special teams.
Steward is working as second-team, weak-side linebacker this spring.
“It’s the first time I feel 100 percent,” he said. “I think my (explosiveness) is back. I just have to play more aggressively.”
There is the physical recovery from knee injuries — Steward was able to run a 4.6-second 40-yard dash last season — but there is also the mental aspect. It is the psychological aspect of recovery, and the missed practice reps, which Steward said has most slowed him.
“It’s kind of mental,” Steward said. “I don’t know the defense as well as I should. I have to keep working in the film room.”
Anthony has not had injury issues at Clemson. He’s struggled to absorb defenses, having to learn Kevin Steele’s scheme as a freshman, then Brent Venables’ scheme last spring.
Anthony began as the starting middle linebacker last season but lost his job to Spencer Shuey midway through the season after he freelanced too often. Anthony said he feels more comfortable this spring as he shares first-team reps at middle linebacker.
“The game has slowed down,” Anthony said. “You get enough experience and the game slows down. I feel like I’m ahead of the curve. … I have a better understanding of the defense.”
Anthony and Steward aren’t getting caught up in what linebacker spot they are playing — some feel they should switch positions — they just want to get on the field and make an impact. Said Steward: “It’s time to cut it loose.”
Freshman DB Jadar Johnson suffered a dislocated elbow in practice last week and will be out until after spring break. Safety Travis Blanks suffered a head injury in practice on Monday and will likely be out until after spring break.
Anthony said he is at 240 pounds, a 10-pound increase from last season. Anthony wanted to become stronger to better shed blockers … Steward is also noticeably smaller than he was in high school. He weighed 250 pounds at Menendez (Fla.) High but is playing at 230 pounds at Clemson, which is in part by Venables’ design.